WASHINGTON - The Phillies understood the reality that their killer loss to a terrible team created last night at Nationals Park.

They have backed themselves into the very same corner as last season.

"We battled back last year," Chase Utley said after a 9-7 loss to the Washington Nationals, who entered the night as the worst team in baseball. "Now we have to battle back again."

Two Ryan Howard home runs were not enough for the Phillies, who are three games behind the first-place New York Mets in the National League East with just 22 to play. If the Mets go 11-11 the rest of the season, the Phillies would need to finish 14-8 (.636) to finish in a first-place tie.

The Phils open a three-game series tomorrow night against the Mets at Shea Stadium. They are 5-10 against the Mets this season.

"I'm confident about my team," reliever J.C. Romero said. "And I won't stop being confident until the season is over."

The Phillies overcame a seven-game deficit against the Mets with 17 games to play last year to win the NL East. That is comforting, but there is a reason that type of comeback is considered historic.

It very rarely happens.

The Phillies cannot fall much further behind, if at all.

"It's a big series coming up," righthander Joe Blanton said. "Obviously, we'll know more after that. A lot will be said after this series, so we'll see."

Blanton allowed four runs in just four-plus innings. The innings-eater the Phillies acquired from the Oakland Athletics in a July 17 trade has lasted six innings just once in his last five starts.

But the Phillies took a 5-4 lead in the sixth inning when Howard hit his second two-run homer of the night. He leads the majors with 39 homers and is second with 119 RBIs.

The Phillies could not hold the lead.

Chad Durbin, who Charlie Manuel acknowledged could be "a little tired," allowed a solo homer to Ryan Zimmerman in the seventh to tie it. He allowed three hits in the eighth as the Nationals scored four times to take a 9-5 lead.

There was plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is, the Phils need to take at least two of three from the Mets this weekend. If they lose two, they will be four back with 19 games to play.

The Mets blew it once. The odds would be against them blowing it again.

"It's still there for us," Manuel said. "It's getting harder every time we get behind, of course. But it's still there."

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki
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